Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Conspiracy Theory – 2: Vanquishing Ironies, Making Sense of Chaos

It is a common belief in the West that chess was invented in Iran.

Like many common beliefs in the West about the East, the belief is wrong.

The Iranians know that chess is an Indian invention. Legend has it that it was sent to the king of Iran by the king of India as a gift and a puzzle. The Indian challenged his Iranian equal to decipher the game. There were rumors of war between the two countries and the gift was meant to show that Indians knew the art of war.

The Iranian king summoned his wise men who managed to figure out the game. A pleased king asked them to name their reward. They wanted one grain of wheat on the first square of the chess board to be doubled in the next square and so on until all squares were full. The king was disappointed at their modest request and ordered the treasurer to comply. A week later the treasurer came back with the news. You know the story; it was lots of wheat. It must have been the wise men's way of showing that they had truly understood the game.

Why credit Iranians with the invention of chess, then? Because the expression checkmate comes from the Farsi Shah Maat, meaning the king [is] perplexed, confused, unable to escape.

Word origins can provide useful clues to the past, but they must be used in conjunction with other historical, geographical and cultural facts – and common sense; words alone will not do. Checkmate comes from Farsi because Farsi language and literature had a strong influence in lands from India to today's Turkey. Even today in the Taj Mahal you can order tea for two by asking for “do chai”, which is Farsi, as is the name Taj Mahal. But that does not mean that either the people or the place are Iranian.

Here is the proper way of using the origin of words in conjunction with other facts to make a judgment!

Chess is an Indian game and the proof comes from a Farsi word. You see, the bishop piece in Farsi is called ”feel”, which means elephant. There are no elephants in Iran. Iranians do not suffer from undue modesty. They would not have designed a game with the most powerful tactical piece after an animal that did not exist in the country. That would not have occurred to them. Chess had to be created by people who were familiar with elephants and their role in the theater of war.

In return, the legend goes, the Iranian king sent backgammon to India.

But how did the Iranians solve the puzzle? I believe they must have been told of the purpose of the game and the role of king. Absent that information, it would be impossible to unlock the mystery of chess even by observing it being played.

One could of course easily establish that the bishop moves diagonally and the knight in an L pattern. But why they were being moved in one particular manner in one game and a totally different manner and order in the next would remain a mystery. The movements of chess pieces, especially in the initial stage, have no discernible purpose, seem unrelated and at times even seem irrational; think of the occasional sacrifice of a pawn or a rook. What makes the moves consistent is the objective of the game, which transcends individual moves at the same time that it drives them. In fact, we can speak of consistency only if such larger objectives exist.

If you look at hundreds and thousands of chess boards mid game, all pieces have logic for being where they are. The winning side's positioning, though, more closely corresponds to the game’s objective. It was in that sense that Russian chess master Botvinnik said that the game of chess was a search for Truth.

When there is consistency there has to be rationality and rationality lends itself to human understanding. That's how the Indian puzzle must have been deciphered.

As with the game of chess, such is real life. But the correspondence is not exact. In real life, there is more than one player. More importantly – and this is the critical difference between social dynamism with the moves on a chessboard – the individual “pieces” are free men who strive to do what is best for them. They neither know nor believe in a grand objective, which, to their mind, contradicts the individual’s free will.

But while there is no a priori or consciously planned social objective, there is something else at work that functionally serves the same purpose. That something is the social milieu, produced by the interaction of an untold number of individual initiatives, group economic activities, legislations, legal rulings, government programs as well as social, artistic, literary and religious works. This milieu changes due to human activities; everyone knows that “society changes”. The change, however, is not random or haphazard. It has a direction, which acts as the equivalent of the checkmate objective in chess: it provides the motivation for individual moves and thus, directs them. Only the individual actors do not know it. So they move according to what they think is best for them only to be entrapped and, not so infrequently, “taken”!

From the viewpoint of the individual, then, social life is full of contradictions, ironies and unpleasant surprises; everyone will tell you that life isn’t fair. Hence the assortment of helpers, explainers, gurus, advisers – charlatans, mountebanks, knaves and fools – to make sense of it for us or help us overcome it – always at the personal level. Just browse the “self help” section of any bookstore or follow your local and national politics.

The chaos and randomness on the chessboard of social life gives way to clarity if we know the force that drives the pieces. We would then not only know why things are the way they are, but where they are heading; force is a vector and one of its attributes is direction. All the contradictions and ironies disappear.

I will return with the final part of this series.

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